Monday, June 14, 2021

It’s Good to Be Back

6/13/21 Gas Works Park

Something I missed during the pandemic that no amount of Zooming or Facebooking could replace: sketching with my USk Seattle homies. For the first time in 15 months, we were back in action – at my favorite park!

Although the weather media had been giving dire warnings of “tropical storms” and 98 percent chance of rain all day, urban sketchers obviously live charmed lives, because we barely felt a drop or two all morning. I probably spent as much time catching up with friends as I did sketching, yet somehow I managed to capture four views of Gas Works Park – two facing the Space Needle and two thumbnails inside the old pump house. Being with my tribe is apparently inspiring.

This was as “normal” as I’ve felt in a long, long time. It’s good to be back.

It's good to be back!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

An Infinite for Ballpoint Pen Day


6/10/21 Observing National Ballpoint Pen Day on trash day
Last Thursday was National Ballpoint Pen Day, which I have observed each year since I found out about it. On June 10, 1943, Hungarian brothers László and György Bíró became owners of the patent for the ubiquitous pen type that most of us associate with cheap disposables and promotional giveaways.

Ever since a few InkTobers ago when I committed to giving ballpoint a serious try, the basic, cheap Bic has been my first choice for drawing. Despite its lowly reputation, Bic ballpoints contain a unique type of ink that is ideal for building layers of subtle values, just like graphite. Although I’ve tried, I’ve not yet found an ink in other pens that responds in quite the same way. The gloppy, viscous ink in Bics that is not pleasant to use for writing is exactly what makes it great for drawing.

On Thursday, however, I thought I’d try something new: a Caran d’Ache Infinite. At six bucks, it’s pricey for a plastic-body ballpoint but very inexpensive for anything made by Caran d’Ache! It’s a fantastic writing pen – smoothly flowing with the gentlest knock I’ve ever used. Alas, as expected, the ink doesn’t layer the way a crappy Bic does. The thin, smooth ink is very nice for writing but just doesn’t have the same oomph. I’ve found this to be true of high-quality Japanese ballpoints, too, like the Uni Jetstream: The sad paradox is that if it’s good to write with, it probably isn’t as good to draw with.

I popped the Infinite into my bag for quick jots, which is what it was made for. As for drawing, I’ll stick with Bic Stics.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Pampas Grass and Other Challenges

6/9/21 pampas grass, Maple Leaf neighborhood

A few days ago I showed a homework assignment for my Drawing Nature class this week. Here are the rest – more studies in capturing textures, patterns and all-important values with colored pencils. In her demos, Kathleen Moore made a variety of small studies – sea grass, moss, bark, distant trees – and encouraged us to try as many as we could from life.

The most challenging I tried was the pampas grass, above. The slender, blade-like leaves were bright yellow-green in the sunlight; the feathery plumes were nearly white. The base of the plant was dark under the leaves. I tried to get the base as dark as possible, but that muddied the bright green leaves, and it was difficult coloring in the narrow spaces between the leaves. To make the whitish plumes show, I used a dark-green background and almost lost their feathery texture. I hope I retained enough to evoke pampas.

6/7/21 moss on our rockery

The small lumps of moss (left) were challenging in a different way. First was finding the fascinatingly complex mix of hues I could see – I used nine pencils, none of which were “moss green”! It was relatively easy to capture the soft, fuzzy texture with colored pencils, but the actual hues were much richer and deeper. If I kept blending to make deeper colors, I was afraid I’d lose the texture. Most interesting from a natural perspective were the long, reddish threads above the moss that I had never noticed before.

For the Japanese maple study, I recited Kathleen’s mantra: “Analyze the simple, overall shapes and patterns – not details. If you can’t see it when you squint, don’t draw it!” Squinting wildly, I tried to evoke the patterns of light and dark as well as the pointy shapes of maple leaves while resisting the temptation to draw each leaf.

6/8/21 Japanese maple

The two single-leaf studies below were for the purpose of trying specific techniques she demo’d. In one demo, as an alternative to using mineral spirits, she painted a light wash of watercolor to give her sample an initial base of color before applying colored pencil. I used watercolor pencil, which I activated and then finished with dry pencil. I also practiced making pencil strokes to indicate shape. These techniques are part of my regular practice and were not new to me, but I did enjoy watching her demo using watercolor paint. (My assessment: Why get out paints when colored pencils are already in your hand?)

watercolor pencil activated with water; dry pencil applied over; pencil stroke direction indicating the leaf's curves

The second leaf study (I found a dead one in the wastebasket after Greg had cleaned up our bedroom plant) was an experiment with embossing. I didn’t have the embossing stylus that she had recommended for this purpose (a tool that Crystal Shin also uses), so I used a freshly sharpened white Verithin instead. It was a bit too sharp, and the point snapped off as soon as I began using it, but otherwise, it worked well for this purpose. After impressing white lines into the paper to emulate veins, color applied over the lines will skip over them, leaving them white. The white pencil gave me another idea – retaining the white of the paper for the highlights at the bottom of the leaf. The white waxy pigment acts as a resist for color (lightly) applied over it. It was effective as a resist, but I think saving out the white of the paper the hard way looks better.

embossing with a white Verithin and using white pencil as resist

Although I didn’t have time to make studies for the other techniques she demo’d, I made small swatches to sample them (below): erasing out highlights, using a Sakura Gelly Roll for white lines, and sgraffito using the dull side of an Exacto blade. The latter technique is fraught with peril: If done gently, scraping off a bit of color can be an effective way of recapturing small white lines or marks, but it’s easy to damage the paper’s surface. I’d do this only as a last resort.

samples of erasing, Gelly Roll, sgraffito

Using an eraser for highlights works beautifully with graphite, but it’s iffy with colored pencils. A good plastic, kneadable or electric eraser can take out light layers of colored pencil, but multiple layers (as in my swatch) will likely be permanent.

Finally, here’s the Prismacolor palette I used for all of these studies. As I’ve learned many times, despite how many green pencils I may have, I never seem to have enough of the right greens. Some are useful for recycle bins and Seattle street signs but are not even close to what I see in nature (at least Pacific Northwest nature).

Prismacolor palette used in these studies

Friday, June 11, 2021

Out of Practice at Café Arta


6/9/21 Cafe Arta patron (I know they all look different, but 
these are the same guy.)

Café Arta is the café and pub adjacent to Third Place Books. I sketched its patio from the parking lot a few weeks ago, thinking that it would be a pleasant place to sketch someday soon. Someday came, and it is, indeed, a lovely patio to enjoy your choice of sunshine or shade and a good meal or snack.

Enjoying coffee and a decadent slice of chocolate cake as I sketched a couple of patrons, I proved a myth wrong: Contrary to popular metaphor, it is not like riding a bike. Sketching is more like playing the piano (which I haven’t done in five decades, but I remember what it was like): regular practice is essential – with emphasis on the regular.

I warmed up with a few quick gestures of a man who changed positions frequently. Then another man looked like he would stay in one position while he ate a large sandwich. I barely had time to finish as he wolfed it down faster than I expected. Either that, or I’m just slower than I used to be.

Rip Van Winkle missed a lot of practice in 14 months.

I know he looks similar, but he's a different guy.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Teeny, Tiny Sketch Kits, Part 1

Made during my first year of sketching, this
watercolor kit in a TJ's mint tin served 
me for many years. It will probably always
be my smallest.
What is it about teeny, tiny sketch kits that I find so appealing?

When I first got started nearly a decade ago, I became fascinated by all the tiny watercolor sketch kits people were putting together. It seems to be a collective obsession of the urban sketching world. Of course, I made my share of them. My tiniest was a Trader Joe’s mint tin containing eight-to-16 colors, which went through a few evolutions. It served me well through my watercolor years.

Long after I had stopped using watercolors on location, I was still enamored with tiny kits. When I saw an adorable, handmade palette at the Amsterdam symposium two years ago, I grabbed one, even though I knew I had no current use for it.

This adorable palette was handmade by Charlie's Urban Sketch Factory.

My adoration of tiny kits has nothing to do with my annual minimalism challenge, which is about simplifying the number of implements and materials in my bag. The tiny kit intrigue has more to do with compactness than simplicity.

In fact, it’s not even about practicality: A tiny watercolor palette might be easier to carry, but is it easier to use than a full-size one? Not really. And yet I don’t seem to be alone in my fascination with size (or lack thereof).

The pencils in this Polychromos travel set
are 3/4 length. The tin design is a reproduction
of a 1908 tin.

Mini-sized versions of colored pencil sets are not as easy to make as their watercolor counterparts. Itsy-bitsy novelty pencils are available, of course, but if the barrels are the diameter of toothpicks, they are impractical to use. If the pencils are simply short with a standard diameter, however, there’s potential.

The Uni Water Color Pencil kit rekindled my interest in building a mini kit.

Recently I showed the mini-size Mitsubishi Uni Water Color Pencil travel set in my review of its full-size big sister. But I know you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s not the only mini-size set I own. I also have a travel-size Faber-Castell Polychromos set (I got mine at CW Pencils, but I don’t see it there anymore), which has three-quarter-length pencils that come in a replica vintage tin; a vintage Mitsubishi Winnie-the-Pooh set; and a Tombow mini set.

It was the Uni Water Color set, which came with a tiny waterbrush, extender and sharpener that fit in the same box, that put me in the tiny sketch kit frame of mind again. While the pencils in that set are good, wouldn’t it be ideal to build a tiny kit containing my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils? I have plenty of now-stubby-length Museum Aquarelles to make the kit!

Naturally, my first thought was to swap out the Uni pencils for Museum Aquarelles in that nicely designed, compact box. Unfortunately, my favorite pencils are just a smidge too fat to fit! (Sharpeners, extenders and now compact boxes: These darn Caran d’Ache pencils are almost more trouble than they’re worth! Almost.) Besides, that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?

Stay tuned for Part 2. 

Vintage Winnie-the-Pooh set

Tombow mini colored pencil set

Wednesday, June 9, 2021



6/6/21 Through my studio window

This week we are studying scale, pattern, value and texture of plants in my Drawing Nature with Colored Pencils class. Once again, I am thrilled that we are drawing from life instead of photos, and this week’s lessons are particularly applicable to urban sketching. Unfortunately, we are having an inconvenient streak of typical June-uary weather lately – cold, windy and sometimes wet. Wishing I could go outdoors to work on assignments, I was in my studio doing some color value studies (a regular part of our weekly homework; see below) when I glanced through my rain-streaked window: Our neighbor’s crooked hedge, bush and trees were right there, conveniently waiting to be turned into homework!

“Analyze the simple, overall shapes and patterns – not details. Analyze the simple shapes of light and dark. If you can’t see it when you squint, don’t draw it!” These were the main messages of Kathleen Moore’s lesson.

It wasn’t as easy as it would be on a sunny day, but I squinted hard to see the fringe of light on top of the hedge. In her lesson demo, she emphasized pushing the darker values hard against the lighter values to bring them forward. We are also studying the varying textures we see in nature, and the cedar tree behind the hedge offered a good example (and provided the dark value behind the light). The subtle variations in greens differentiate between the hedge and the bush.

The utility pole wasn’t necessary in terms of the homework assignment, but I am, after all, an urban sketcher.

Each week we are to choose one base color and change it in value, intensity and hue in graduated steps.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021




One evening we were dining al fresco on our back deck. The light on our neighbor’s patio umbrella caught my eye, and I caught it with my Field Notes. A minute later, the light was gone.

Walking around Maple Leaf Park on a Saturday afternoon, I stopped for a few gestures of kids throwing a Frisbee. Then I continued walking.

Prolific sketcher Roy calls it sketchwaiting: What we do while we’re waiting for something or someone. When I arrived at our Green Lake meeting location, I looked around and didn’t see Kathleen yet. I started sketching a row of trees. This is as far as I got when I heard my name called.


There was a time when I used to feel a pressure to make sure every sketch I started was finished (or “resolved,” as art teachers put it) – a story with a completed story arc. The more I sketch, the less pressure I feel about this; in fact, I don’t feel any pressure at all anymore. Or maybe it’s just the way I feel these days: Any sketch or partial sketch (or even an unidentifiable mark on the page) is a declaration of joy. Life is full of these for people who walk around with a sketchbook.

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